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Virtual Learning Debuts at BHS

The February Board of Education Meeting was a packed agenda with two presentations including the introduction of VHS – an online learning program for students.

After hearing  Principal Lee Panagoulias’ presentation of VHS ­– a new virtual high school program - at last night's , Chairman Frank Carrano commented that the program would bring the district “from an area that’s comfortable to an area that’s not so comfortable,” adding, “but where we need to go.”

Virtual high school has been on the forefront of ’s mind since he joined the Branford School system last summer. In previous interviews with Branford Patch, Hernandez had mentioned the notion, but the  named the project something for the future. However Panagoulias stated the $10,000 annual cost of the project would be paid through an ARRA grant with no cost to the school district at this time.

Of a rich applicant pool, Social Studies Department teacher Peter Bouley was chosen to lead the VHS program. Panagoulias said his cutting-edge approach to teaching, which includes incorporation of social media and online tools, made him the ideal candidate.

, BOE student representative, said he believes Bouley was a good choice because of his ability to keep students engaged. “I have never really heard of something like this. It would be something new and something different,” Nolan said.

VHS is an online learning program that was selected from a variety of options and offers 250 courses for students to chose from. Currently 500 member schools participate in 29 countries. Essentially, Panagoulias said students could be taking courses with students from around the world through the program. In addition to overseeing the BHS program, Bouley will teach a course through VHS as well.

To participate, Bouley, like all VHS teachers, had to be accepted into the program through providing credentials (he was accepted Wednesday) and must take 10 hours of training a week for 10 weeks to prepare for the program. All courses offered are approved by state curriculum standards and students taking the courses will be offered one elective credit at BHS. The online course will not replace or supplement the students’ regular required courses.

Panagoulias said the 25 spots for students will be first-come, first-serve with the 2011-12 seniors having first choice. Enrollment for students will open in April.

Concerns from the BOE arose regarding guidance for participants. Panagoulias assured the BOE that students will not be left to fend for themselves, but will have a site coordinator to help with the new program as well as assistance from guidance counselors. Students will be offered a work period during school hours for the online courses, but are not limited to learning through the online school only during school days. Panagoulias said he could see students in the program next year using laptops or working in computer labs during their free time.

According to Panagoulias, the 250 unique credit-bearing courses offered by VHS feature a wide range of general education, world languages and AP courses in addition to challenging electives and technical courses. The online learning will foster discussions, group projects, web-based presentations and global peer-to-peer communication opportunities.

The goals of VHS for BHS are to incorporate online discussion into learning; increase critical thinking skills; expand program of studies; offer potential credit recovery and summer enrichment; offer specific academic needs-based courses for students; and distinguish students among peers in preparation for graduation.

BOE student representative Melissa Kreider said she thinks the program will prepare students for college as there are more online learning opportunities at the collegiate level. In her own experience, she said she took a class at Southern Connecticut State University and found it difficult to manage. She thinks the support from staff at BHS would make it easier for students to take courses outside the traditional BHS curriculum while having the support of the school staff.

A two-year, ARRA-funded VHS program was approved by the BOE and will move forward this month.

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